GAZA: Israel and Hamas struck a last-minute agreement on Thursday to extend their ceasefire till Saturday morning, while Egyptian and Qatari negotiators kept pushing for a new two-day extension in exchange for prisoners and aid flows.
The announcement came hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel, urging Tel Aviv to immediately hold Jewish settler extremists accountable for violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Meanwhile, Gazans have been able to use the week-long truce to venture out, visit abandoned and destroyed homes, and dig scores more bodies out of the wreckage. But residents and international agencies say the aid that has arrived so far is still trivial compared to the besieged enclave’s vast humanitarian needs.
Those who fled the northern part of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, have still been blocked from returning. Many thousands of families are sleeping rough in makeshift shelters with only the belongings they could carry.
“What is a truce that doesn’t bring us back home? Israeli soldiers on tanks fired at us when we tried to go back to check on our homes in Gaza City after we heard it was bombed,” said Mohammad Joudat, 25, a displaced business administration graduate, speaking in Deir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip.
So far, more than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, including children and women, in the Israeli relentless bombardment since Oct 7, with nearly 240 Palestinians killed in the West Bank by its soldiers or settlers, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
In addition, the prisoner releases have brought joy tinged with agony, with families anxiously waiting each night to learn if their loved ones will be freed and learning harrowing details from those who return.
On Thursday, Hamas handed two more women prisoners to the Red Cross and more prisoners are expected to be released later in the evening following the deal to extend the truce.
‘Avoid civilian harm’
In his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Blinken sought a longer pause that would allow further prisoner exchanges and more aid for displaced civilians in Gaza.
He urged Israeli PM Netanyahu “to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm”, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
Israel “must put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans that minimise further casualties of innocent Palestinians”, he told reporters in Tel Aviv, “including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza, where they can be safe and out of the line of fire”.
After the meeting, Mr Blinken travelled by armoured convoy to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah for talks with President Mahmud Abbas.
The two “spoke about the urgent need for measures to improve security and freedom for Palestinians in the West Bank”, Mr Miller said in a separate statement, with Blinken reiterating “that the United States remains committed to advancing tangible steps for a Palestinian state”.
Once the truce is over, Israel is expected to extend its ground campaign into the south of Gaza, where it had previously asked residents of the northern parts to flee.
Meanwhile, Hamas told its followers to “maintain high military readiness... in anticipation of a resumption of combat if it is not renewed,” according to a message posted on its Telegram channel.
Similarly IDF spokesman Doron Spielman said troops would “move into operational mode very quickly and continue with our targets in Gaza” if the truce expired.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2023